Melanie Phillips

14 March 2005

Terrorism and the trust deficit

Published in: Daily Mail

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After last week's epic stand-off over the government's anti-terrorist control orders, the people of Britain are entitled to feel more than a little bemused. The battle was fought to a Parliamentary standstill, with both sides claiming a tactical victory. But the monumental issues at stake remain perplexingly unresolved.

At the core of the whole controversy lies the toxic question of trust. The Government says the new powers are needed to counter terror because the previous ones were inadequate, and many potential terrorists are at large who pose an unprecedented threat of violence.

Critics respond that they don't believe the threat is serious enough to justify the attack on our ancient liberties. Yet the security service is now reportedly recommending anti-terrorist measures at certain polling stations during the general election. In all this murk, it's the devil's own job to work out where the truth actually resides.

Take the foreign terror suspects who were jailed in Belmarsh because, we were originally told, they presented a threat so serious they had to be locked up without trial. After the Law Lords ruled that their detention was unlawful, however, we were suddenly told that these detainees could safely be dealt with outside jail, under control orders of varying severity.

The Home Secretary wasn't even proposing to activate the house arrest provision without a further resolution by Parliament. So how could it be that people who posed an unprecedented threat before the Law Lords' ruling could now be safely contained in the community?

More baffling still, before the control orders became law some prisoners were released under bail conditions which were thought to be not dissimilar. So if it was possible safely to release them under such conditions all along, why had they been locked up in the first place?

The response that they were never dangerous at all is absurd, since the Special Immigration Appeals Commission had confirmed they were indeed dangerous, and that the terrorism they allegedly represented constituted a 'public emergency threatening the life of the nation'.

What is much more likely is that, after the Law Lords' ruling, the Government simply panicked over what to do. As a result, its measure was wholly inadequate to protect public safety - even before it was put through the Parliamentary wringer.

After all, does anyone really believe that tagging, along with a raft of dubiously enforceable restrictions on communications, is the proper way to deal with such reportedly lethal individuals? Even the draconian house arrest provision requires a level of police and security manpower which is almost certainly not available. And who can have faith in basic levels of official competence? Despite being on the cards for so long, the actual release of the Belmarsh detainees last week descended into chaotic farce.

How on earth can such provisions be remotely appropriate to deal with someone like Abu Qatada, for example, said to be linked to the alleged mastermind of last year's Madrid train station bombings and described by a British judge as a 'truly dangerous individual'? It is nothing less than astonishing that such a person is no longer locked up.

In truth, the lamentable fact is that we seem to have ended up with the worst of all worlds - the destruction of our ancient liberties and procedures wholly inadequate to deal with the threat that we face.

The origins of this problem lie in the fact that, over the years, the judiciary has systematically destroyed the government's ability to control this country's borders and either prevent undesirables from coming in to the country or throw them out.

Ministers had panicked because they refused to face up to the real cause of the crisis - the Human Rights Act. It was the judges' interpretation of this Act which forbade the Government from deporting these foreign terror suspects, thus forcing it to lock them up instead. It was the judges who then used this Act to declare it unlawful to lock them up. And undoubtedly, these same judges will shortly be asked to rule under the same Act that the new control order restrictions are yet another breach of human rights.

The root of the problem is human rights law and the arrogant and out-of-touch judges who interpret it. If these suspects are as dangerous as SIAC says, it is utterly ludicrous that we can't deport them. No country has ever been expected to admit people who pose a threat to the life of the nation. Yet this Government refuses to admit the disaster of its own cherished human rights law and the urgent need to rethink the assumptions beneath it.

But that is only half of this tangled story. For the question remains whether there is a serious threat from home-grown terror suspects to justify control orders against British subjects. Mr Blair says there are several hundred trained al Qaeda operatives in Britain. The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens says there are up to 200.

The Law Lords had been told that upwards of a thousand Britons had attended al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Shadowy security sources reportedly claim a smaller number of people - ranging from a dozen to forty -are actually human 'ticking bombs'.

But for Heaven's sake - even if there are 'only' between 12 and 40 such ticking bombs at large, why on earth aren't they already locked up?

The answer is that in certain cases, evidence couldn't be produced in court without compromising intelligence sources. Very well: the government has now taken powers to restrict such people without trial. Arrests of a number of British suspects can surely be expected imminently.

If no such arrests occur, it is unlikely that this is because no domestic threat exists - given the string of so far unreportable terrorist cases involving British suspects going through the courts right now, along with the conviction two weeks ago of a second British shoe-bomber.

A more likely explanation would be the fear of provoking the Muslim community. Indeed, some object to control orders on the grounds that existing legal powers are adequate but have not been used because the police have been ordered to employ a softly-softly approach towards Muslim terror suspects.

But it is possible that even though such back-pedalling may have occurred, fresh powers were nevertheless still needed to circumvent the risk in some cases of compromised intelligence.

The problem, though, remains that Government claims about the terrorism threat are simply not believed. This is the corrosive effect of the widespread belief that Mr Blair lied about the threat from Saddam Hussein, and therefore would not be trusted even if he said that today was Monday.

Mr Blair has only himself to blame for this. In example after example, he has been more than economical with the truth. During last week's uproar, he hardly helped himself when he claimed that the security service had said the 'sunset clause' would be dangerous, only for that to be immediately repudiated.

But as a result, when he has told the truth he is not believed either. Evidence published in Britain and America - although inadequately reported - clearly shows that up to the start of the war, mostly unchallenged intelligence warnings consistently warned year after year that Saddam never stopped trying to build weapons of mass destruction, along with forging links with al Qaeda.

The tragedy of our times is that, at a time of national danger, we are governed by politicians so patently inadequate they are neither trusted nor believed - and the only victors are the terrorists, watching and plotting as Britain tears itself apart.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie